Asgard

Journalist Amanda Juliot strode into her office briskly at a startlingly early time in the morning. This was no news to her assistant or co-workers, who were used to her antics – the former had been accustomed to long hours for some years, now. Her footsteps thundered along the corridors of the press office, and the door slammed behind her. With a touch to the pressure-sensitive pad near the doorway, she dimmed the plate-glass window that separated her small office from the press's main room, as she always did when she was about to sit at her computer. Like many writers, she disliked the merest feeling of being watched as she typed.

Fingers tapped the smooth surface of her desk as she waited for her reflect-screen to light up. When it finally did, it spread before her face a dazzling array of colors projected from the screen-projectors in her desk. Shunting aside her unanswered mail, she opened a word processor window and coolly reviewed the last paragraph of a story she'd been working on last night.

It was an hour or so later – Amanda was, by this time, typing for her life – when a whistling buzz came from the faulty speaker embedded in the wood of the writing desk. "Amanda, the news editor wants a word," said an irritatingly warped version of her assistant's voice. "Sure," she answered offhandedly, trying to squeeze in half a sentence more in the five steps from his desk to her own.

Too soon, the editor was standing before her. Amanda reflexively took off her reading glasses, saved her file and lowered the reflect-screen. "I left a message in your inbox," he said, before sitting down.

"Do sit, Michael, please," she said ironically. "I was writing. That's what I get a paycheck for."

Michael the editor rolled his eyes. "Our next issue, Amanda. What've you got?"

"Coffee?" asked Amanda as she refilled her own cup from the machine's tap, to her right. Michael shook his head impatiently.

"No caffeine, stories!" he said.

"Well, there's the launching story," considered Amanda, sipping from her white porcelain mug casually. "That one's almost done."

"Will you have it for our next issue?" asked Michael, visibly less agitated.

"Hopefully," replied Amanda.

"What about that faulty stunners story?"

"No can do, Michael," said Amanda flatly.

"Oh, god, Amanda, why?" he demanded.

"There were no faulty stunners," she answered dryly. "There's a story in it, alright, but it's not one about defective palm-stunners."

Michael shook his head. "Everyone's all over that story today and tomorrow, and we've got nada."

"Like it or not, it's only a story if it's true," said Amanda, spreading out her hands. "What next?"

"What about that launching, then?" he said, reluctantly letting go of an issue he could have stubbornly lodged on for a good long while.

"The space agency launched Asgard gama yesterday. There were no unexpected complications. Destination is Mars, aim to orbit it, collect data and analyze it on the spot before sending back to the more sophisticated labs down here on Earth," Amanda elaborated. "On board were thirteen specially trained scientists. If you insist, I can give you their names, titles and specialties."

"No need. This one's small potatoes," Michael decided.

"But this isn't," added she with a smile. "Two hydrologists were on board the Asgard gama. They were hand-picked out of over thirty applicants. One of these applicants had results that were at least as good as the two that were chosen, but was rejected nonetheless."

"Yeah, so?" asked Michael, looking a bit more interested.

"All thirteen of the scientists on Asgard gama are men. The hydrologist that was turned down is a woman." Amanda Juliot was smiling triumphantly. She'd caught the space agency messing up, big time.

"Do you think there'll be interest?" Michael was sounding quite doubtful.

"She came to me," insisted Amanda. "Dr. Faith Parker came to me, and me alone, and told me all about it. We'd be the first to breathe a word about it to the public."

"Yeah, sure," said Michael, waving his hand in the air, "but do you think there'll be reader interest? Reader interest is what buys subscriptions, what makes people read us again."

"Gender discrimination is illegal, and it's still a public issue," replied Amanda. "It's a story. What page do I get?"

"I'll have to talk to the others about it," evaded Michael. "We'll see."

"Stick it in the back and you'll regret it when all the weeklies pick my story up," remarked Amanda, slouching in her computer chair and fingering the gray keys imbedded in the beaten wood of her desk. "Remember, I told you first. The all-male club of the space agency is torn wide open. You can see it in the Asgard gama, anyone can."

"Give me the day to think about it. Meanwhile, make sure the damn thing is done on time for issue closing. If I put you up front and you don't send the file to loading by deadline, you're toast," he threatened.

"Sure," said Amanda casually. "What's next?"

"Do me a column for the weekend?" asked Michael.

"I'll get on it once the launching story's done," promised she.

"You got anything else for me?"

"A minor legal deal that wrapped up a couple days ago," said Amanda. "Serial arsonist got convicted after his girlfriend blabbed. I'll go over it and send it to loading department by noon."

"Great," said Michael in satisfaction, and got up to leave. "You sure I can't convince you about that palm-shocker foul-up story, Amanda?" he tried again, as he stood by the door to her office. "You know I can't give it to anyone else."

"It's not the story you think it is, Michael," answered Amanda quietly. "Take my word for it."

"Why not?" he pressed. "Municipality police is thinking of going after the company that put out these faulty palm-shockers saying they're a public liability. A couple of cops got accidentally shocked by scared girls in dark alleys. That's how I got it, anyway."

"Five or six cops received electric shocks from the protective devices these young women were carrying," corrected Amanda. "The shockers weren't faulty."

"But, Amanda-" objected Michael.

"The palm-shockers weren't faulty," she cut in quietly. "I have one myself."

"What do you mean, you have one yourself?" asked Michael, sounding rather annoyed.

"I mean, the shockers were fine. Those cops didn't get shocked accidentally," she explained tartly.

"Don't get cryptic on me, I need details!" demanded he.

"Palm-shockers are designed to be carried all the time, as a defense against attack. Specifically, they are designed to help women protect themselves in dangerous situations." She opened her desk drawer, and took out a small metallic device, like a bracelet with several steel tendrils. A round disc fitted perfectly into her palm, and the strap curled back and clasped on the back of her hand, while other, finer straps hung loose, perhaps meant to grip other parts of her hand. "You see?" she said to Michael, flexing her hand. "They work perfectly. The shove-to-shock reaction is nearly flawless. A tremendous financial success and well-adapted to fill its role."

"Right, so where do the faulty ones come from? Manufacture glitch or inferior copy made to look like the real thing?" he asked.

"No, Michael," started Amanda, beginning to lose her temper. "The damn cops didn't get shocked accidentally because the palm-shockers those women were carrying were fine. It's the cops that were faulty."

"You think the cops attacked them?" Michael asked, raising his eyebrows skeptically.

"It's been known to happen," remarked Amanda sardonically. "I carry this thing for protection. It's worked great, so far." She flexed her hand again, then started to unclasp the strap's catch.

"I haven't got nearly enough evidence," she said quietly as the shocker slithered off her hand, "and it'd be going against the municipal police."

"It's a story, Amanda. Get evidence," replied Michael flatly.

"You don't know what it's like to be a woman in the city," said Amanda. "Go away, I need to write." With that, she reached down and switched her reflect-screen back on, and it phased into existence as a curtain of light, shaped into multiple overlapping frames, word processor inbox over photo scans over more word processor files. Slowly, the editor walked out and closed the door behind him. Amanda picked out the Asgard gama story, then pressed a switch at the side of her desk.

"Need something?" her assistant asked from the deffective speaker.

"Yeah, get me municipality police on voice mail," said Amanda resolutely. Reaching for her reading glasses, she set out to finish a few paragraphs before they could be reached.